Bart Ehrman, the Afterlife, and Hell: Misrepresenting Jesus Again
It is simply mind-boggling to see how anyone as educated in the field of biblical research as Bart Erhman is, could so egregiously mispresent the Bible’s teaching on the soul and afterlife. In his recent article, titled “What Jesus Really Said about Heaven and Hell,” he claims that, “The Hebrew Bible itself assumes that the dead are simply dead—that their body lies in the grave and there is no consciousness, ever again.”1 He further declared, “Neither Jesus, nor the Hebrew Bible he interpreted, endorsed the view that departed souls go to paradise or everlasting pain.” In order to make such statements, and have any hope of being taken seriously by an honest reader, Dr. Ehrman must rely on the tragic, but all-too-true reality, that most people have not read the Bible. Those who have given sincere, and thoughtful attention to the biblical text are struck by the discordance between Ehrman’s teaching and the Bible’s plain statements.
Ehrman claims that the Old Testament teaches that once a person dies, there is no consciousness after death. That would mean that the Bible writers did not believe in a soul or spirit that lived on after the physical body died. Therefore, if we could show just one instance of the Old Testament representing a conscious, disembodied spirit of any person, it would refute Ehrman’s claim. Such an example is not difficult to find. In 1 Samuel 28 we read the intriguing story of King Saul disguising himself and visiting a spiritualist referred to as the medium of Endor. In the account, Saul asks the women to, “Bring up Samuel for me” (1 Samuel 28:11). The women states, “I saw a spirit ascending out of the earth” (vs. 13). The spirit turns out to be that of the physically dead prophet Samuel. He then appears to Saul and asks why Saul would disturb him. The spirit of Samuel then explains to Saul that because of his disobedience, “tomorrow you and your sons will be with me” (vs. 19). The next day Saul and his sons were killed in battle. Their bodies remained on the Earth, while their spirits went to be with Samuel. Regardless of whether or not you believe the story and it’s supernatural elements2, it cannot reasonably be denied that this story represents the belief that although Samuel’s body was dead, his disembodied spirit lived on.
The New Testament overwhelmingly supports the teaching that the soul lives on after death. The Sadducees based their belief system on similar thinking to what Ehrman adopts in his article. They claimed that once people die, there is no remaining soul or spirit. Acts 23:8 states, “For the Sadducees say that there is no resurrection—and no angel or spirit.” This group posed a situation to Jesus that they believed would prove their point. They presented the scenario to Jesus of a woman who had been married seven times, then asked Him, “Therefore, in the resurrection, whose wife of the seven will she be?” (Matthew 22:29). Jesus’ scathing response showed the Sadducees and those listening to the exchange that the denial of an immortal soul went against both the Old Testament and His own teachings. He said, “You are mistaken, not knowing the Scriptures nor the power of God…. But concerning the resurrection of the dead, have you not read what was spoken to you by God, saying, ‘I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’? God is not the God of the dead but of the living” (22:29-32). What was Jesus’ point? Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob were physically dead. But God is the God of the living, so they must be alive. But where are they alive? Not in bodily form. Their spirits, which the Sadducees denied, were still very much alive. Those who teach anything other than this truth simply “are mistaken, not knowing the Scriptures nor the power of God.” Sure, some ancient Jews misunderstood the teachings of the Old Testament; but they were just wrong, as are modern teachers who teach the same thing.
Ehrman further insists that Jesus did not endorse “the view that departed souls go to paradise or everlasting pain.” On the contrary, Jesus absolutely and unequivocally endorsed and openly taught that the souls of those who were righteous went to paradise and the souls of the wicked were ushered into torment. One of the clearest examples of this teaching is found in Luke 16:19-30. Jesus related the events of the lives of a particular rich man and a poor beggar named Lazarus. “So it was that the beggar died, and was carried by the angels to Abraham’s bosom. The rich man also died and was buried. And being in torments in Hades, he lifted up his eyes and saw Abraham afar off, and Lazarus in his bosom. Then he cried and said, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus that he may dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am tormented in this flame’” (Luke 16:22-25). The rich man went on to beg Abraham to send Lazarus back to Earth to talk to the rich man’s five brothers who were lost (vss. 25-31). Notice the elements of Jesus’ teaching. First, the physical bodies of both the rich man and Lazarus were dead. Second, their souls were then removed to an afterlife. Third, the afterlife consisted of two different destinations: one called “Abraham’s bosom,” which was a place of comfort; the other labeled as “torments,” which was a place of burning and pain. Fourth, this was not a final, bodily resurrection since the events on Earth were still happening at the time.
Jesus’ discussion with the thief on the cross provides further clarity of His view of the soul. When the thief acknowledged Jesus’ true identity, Jesus said to him, “Assuredly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise” (Luke 23:43). Jesus knew His physical body was going to die, but His spirit and the spirit of the thief on the cross would be together in a place Jesus called Paradise. When we turn to Acts, we see that Jesus’ soul “was not left in Hades [the realm of the dead—KB]” (Acts 2:31). Jesus died, His soul went to the realm of the dead, specifically, to the destination known as Paradise, and was brought back three days later and reunited with His resurrected body. Jesus most certainly taught that righteous people go to Paradise when they die.
The Eternality of Hell
When we look closely at what Dr. Ehrman is saying, however, we see that he recognizes that Jesus believed in a resurrection. But, Ehrman insists this resurrection would involve “eternal life here on earth, instead of eternal bliss for souls.” He continued his thought that Jesus “did not believe in hell as a place of eternal torment.” “Jesus did not say souls would be tortured there. They simply would no longer exist.” Such a denial and twisting of Jesus’ actual teachings is painful for the conscientious Bible reader to stomach. In Jesus’ discussion of the end of the world and the destination of the righteous and the wicked, He said of the wicked, “And these will go away into everlasting punishment, but the righteous into eternal life” (Matthew 25:45). Ehrman insists that “everlasting punishment” simply means annihilation and has nothing to do with pain or discomfort. How did Jesus respond to such an idea? “So it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come forth, separate the wicked from among the just, and cast them into the furnace of fire. There will be wailing and gnashing of teeth” (Matthew 13:49).3 When Jesus told the story of the unforgiving servant, He said, “And his master was angry, and delivered him to the torturers until he should pay all that was due to him. So My heavenly Father also will do to you if each of you, from his heart, does not forgive his brother his trespasses” (Matthew 18:34-35). Everlasting punishment, wailing, gnashing of teeth, and torturers are all mental pictures designed by Jesus to help us see the unspeakably painful and perpetual nature of what will happen to a person’s soul in hell forever. Jesus clearly taught that souls would be “tortured” in hell for their refusal to accept God’s grace.4
The Fear of Death
Ehrman begins his article laying bare the fact that humans are scared of death “our constant companion.” He discusses how most of us try to ignore it or laugh it off, but even in our laughing at death such mockery is “rooted precisely in terror.” He explains that the fear of eternal torment and misery are quite ancient. And he suggests, “Possibly this is a good time to help people realize that it simply will not be that way.” Ehrman’s solution to the fear of death and punishment after death is to dismiss it with a wave of the hand and deny that an eternal hell exists. I know he wishes such were the case. In his book God’s Problem, he states, “As a result, when I fell away from my faith—not just in the Bible as God’s inspired word, but in Christ as the only way of salvation…I still wondered, deep down inside: could I have been right after all? What if I was right then but wrong now? Will I burn in hell forever? The fear of death gripped me for years and there are still moments when I wake up at night in a cold sweat.”5 Sadly, denying the reality of an eternal hell will not solve the problem anymore than denying cancer will make it go away.
Jesus and the inspired Bible writers understood humanity’s fear of death. That is the reason Jesus came to Earth. “He, Himself likewise shared in the same, that through death He might destroy him who had the power of death, that is, the devil, and release those who through fear of death were all their lifetime subject to bondage” (Hebrews 2:14-15). For Ehrman, his readers, and all humanity, there is only one solution to the fear of death and everlasting punishment. Jesus’ death and resurrection provide the only real hope any person can have. “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in Me, though he may die, he shall live. And whoever lives and believes in me shall never die” (John 11:26).
2 I would argue that everyone should believe the events happened as they are recorded since they are found in the Bible and the Bible can be shown to be the inerrant, inspired Word of God, see Behold! The Word of God, Apologetics Press, http://apologeticspress.org/pdfs/e-books_pdf/Behold%20the%20Word%20of%20God.pdf. However, it is not necessary to believe that the Bible is inspired to understand that it is teaching that Samuel’s disembodied spirit was very much alive, even though his body was in the grave. Furthermore, one cannot miss the teaching that Saul and his sons would somehow be with Samuel in the afterlife even though their physical bodies would be dead.
3 Emphasis added by author in all the Scriptures unless otherwise noted.
5 Bart Ehrman (2008), God’s Problem (New York: Harper Collins), p. 127.